Palmer-Donavin’s Robyn Pollina took the road less traveled on the way to becoming just the sixth CEO for her company in August of last year. Pollina started out in 1995 as an assistant controller for building materials distributor Palmer-Donavin, which is based in Grove City, Ohio, before spending 23 years as the company’s CFO. All told, Pollina has been with the company for more than 25 years.
During her stint as CFO, Pollina worked hand-in-hand with former CEO Bob Calhoun, who nominated her for Modern Distribution Management’s Women in Distribution Awards. Calhoun cited Pollina’s “great leadership qualities that have been demonstrated in association work and non-profits as well as leading our company,” in his nomination.
“I probably don’t have the traditional career path that a lot of CEOs take because I definitely was a finance person for most of my career,” says Pollina. “I’ve been around a while and I know the business and everything, but now I’m trying to look at how I work differently and what I do differently in this new role. It’s challenging, but it’s wonderful.”
While she was CFO, Pollina worked with Calhoun and others to convert Palmer-Donavin to an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) structure, which made all of the employees stakeholders in the company. As an ESOP company, Palmer-Donavin embraces company culture as one of its core values.
“We’ve been an employee-owned company since 2007 and I was a part of that process and transaction to sell the company to the employees,” she says. “That was very rewarding, and absolutely the culture is a big deal here. I’m a big champion of the structure, but really what it comes down to is everybody feeling like they’re a part of what we’re building here.”
Pollina says there are short-term benefits to being an ESOP company, such as bonuses, as well as the ability for employees to cash out their company shares once they retire. But the ESOP structure also enables the company and its employees to support the communities they live in as well as different charities.
“It’s really important to give back to the community and the industry as well,” she says. “We do support the United Way, but then we also support the initiatives that our employees are into, whether it’s sponsoring a team or giving them some time to volunteer for a cause that’s important for them.
“We match some contributions that a branch may raise for a particular entity, but we also do it for each other. We have an employee-giving platform that’s built right into our payroll system where you can make direct monetary or PTO contributions to employees in need. We’ve got giving back inside our company and then also outside in the communities where we are physically located in and serve. It’s a big part of who we are.”
When it comes to mentors during her career, Pollina is quick to cite Calhoun, who taught her about the business, as well as the importance of building relationships and making connections.
“Serving him for 20 years as CFO, he really served me back,” she says. “He modeled the servant/leadership philosophy that all of the leaders here at Palmer-Donavin try to follow.
“The numbers are very important. The data is very important; it lays the groundwork for measuring and all those important things. But there are stories and people and relationships behind those numbers.”
Pollina says she also made a point of aligning herself with leading women in the distribution community, and she has also hired coaches to help her get through certain stretches of her career.
Don’t let fear hold you back
When asked about some of the obstacles that she has overcome during her career, Pollina says fear of not being up to a task or job was the biggest one initially. At some point, she realized that fear was holding her back, and that feeling uncomfortable was OK because in the end it made her better.
“It’s OK to be uncomfortable, but it’s not OK to be fearful,” she says. “That was my biggest obstacle, and it was actually inside my own head.
“It’s getting better in the industry because we have so many mentors, and we have some other leaders that we can look to as we blaze the trail a little bit. It helps to see others get there.”
Pollina says having a female’s perspective is an asset to companies’ teams. Women are often able to juggle multiple balls at the same time whether that’s through parenting, sports or their careers.
“Women have this awesome talent for balancing multiple initiatives,” she says. “When you’ve got a leadership team, you need a diversity of thought and perspective that really helps the business move forward. It’s not always everybody rowing the boat in the same direction, sometimes there will be tension.
“I really think a woman’s perspective on certain business issues is an asset. Recognizing their great ability to balance things and then also hearing their opinions are assets.”
During the pandemic, women were better able to stay connected and be flexible during the move to remote work, according to Pollina. Going forward, distributors need to find new ways to measure productivity and results when working in a hybrid model of a few days in an office and the rest at home.
“We have to be flexible,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of really good life experiences that women can bring to solving some of those problems. The industry is changing and to attract new talent you’re going to need to have a flexible and workable program so people can balance everything in their lives.
“There are also great opportunities and ideas from the women that are already inside our companies.”
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